What we do to prevent cheating (and what you can do too)

Carousel Learning
6 min readJan 13, 2021

Hi Carousel,

One of my students has told me that some of his friends have been cheating on their Carousel homework by copying and pasting. Is there a way you can stop this happening?

This is a support email we’ve received a few times. Not particularly often, but it has cropped up. So what should we make of that? Perhaps we can infer that lots of students aren’t cheating; or maybe it means they are cheating, but their teachers aren’t finding out about it?

I think traditionally part of what makes homework rubbish is that because teachers aren’t with the students whilst they are doing it, they can’t quality assure what’s going on. Is the student thinking, or are they just copying and pasting? Are they calling their friends and asking for the answers? Are they giving it the barest modicum of effort so that they pass the “ok you’ve done the homework” teacher test? In short, traditional homework is very easy to set in a way that results in no additional learning from the students. Put differently, “having done the homework” is not a guarantor of “have learnt something.”

We wanted to try and make Carousel not like this. We had to make it very easy to set in a way that does result in additional learning, and limits students ability to have done the homework but not learnt anything in the process. We needed to make “Carousel completion” a better guarantor of learning than normal “homework completion.”

Being honest, we haven’t yet fully meet that target, and we accept that maybe we never will (this, by the way, is why I’m not in charge of sales). Obviously that’s not ideal, but the flipside is that I think we’ve done enough to be a good chunk of the way there, and certainly further than any other example of homework I can think of. Below, I’ll outline what we’ve done, what we still need to do, as well as some general tips for preventing students from completing homework and not learning anything by the process.

What we’ve done

1 Randomiser

Every time a student takes a quiz, the order that questions are asked in is randomised. This may seem trivial, but it means they can’t just message a friend and say “what was the answer to question 1?” or whatever. Similarly, the first person in a class to take a quiz can’t write a message to everyone else saying “question 1: photosynthesis, question 2: leaves…” and so on. It also means they have to retrieve answers in a different order from the one they saw on the flashcards.

2 Two-tab killer

If you open up a quiz in one tab and then try the flashcards in another, you get locked out and the system won’t take your answers:

This means that students can’t just hop backwards and forwards from the flashcards to the quiz, entering answers based on what they see in the flashcards and without really having to think about anything.

3 Teacher marking

When a student self-marks their quiz, they could easily mark things right which are definitely wrong, on the assumption that the teacher won’t — or can’t — check. When we built the “mark quiz” function, we spent ages making it as clean and simple as possible so that you could easily spot incorrect answers that students marked as correct.

In this case, I don’t think the fourth answer down is quite good enough, and I actually think the student was pulling a fast one by marking it as correct. Easily solved:

4 “Uncopiable” flashcards

We’ve made our flashcards “uncopiable”, so you can’t even copy the text from them. This stops enterprising students fromhammering through the flashcards and extracting the answers via copy-paste, so they can paste them back when they do the quiz.

What we are looking at

We‘re going to keep innovating in this area. For example, we plan to record how long a student spent on a particular quiz. If they are doing it five times faster (or five times slower!) than everyone else in the class, then that’s a giveaway that something isn’t quite right and you need to figure out what the story is (the student could just be amazing or needed the loo or whatever). Of course, if you have any ideas of things that may help, just let us know.

What you should be looking at

It is, of course, still possible to cheat. A student could write down the answers to every question from the flashcards and then enter them into the quiz. This would be pretty laborious, but it’s technically possible. Students can also log in as their friends and do the quiz for them. Again, laborious, but possible. As I said at the beginning, there are limits to what we can practically achieve.

But, importantly, a lot of the work here also has to come from you. I think Carousel is at its most powerful when it is set as homework, but then reviewed in class. You can, and should, use it as a springboard for your in-class questioning. And if a student gets an answer in class massively wrong that they aced on Carousel, you know they’ve found some way to game the system. In order to build a positive culture around quizzing, here are the things that I do:

  1. Explain why we do it and why it’s important
  2. Acknowledge publicly in class that it’s possible for students to do the quiz with the bare minimum of effort, but explain why this is a waste of everybody’s time
  3. Check my “suspect” students’ responses before going over as a class and Cold Calling them with the exact same question. Deliver stern, public words if and when they get it disastrously wrong. Script example: I don’t understand. How could you give such a good answer in your quiz but not know it in class? Can you explain that please? I’d like to know…[no response]…ok, let me be clear. Everybody listen, eyes up here. Thank you. I’m not accusing anyone of cheating. I am saying it looks like some people haven’t taken the quiz as seriously as most of the class has. Let me explain the benefits that the rest of the class will be feeling right now…”
  4. Identify anomalous responses — so ones where a student is word for word correct (or almost word for word) but everybody else got it seriously wrong.
  5. Call home in cases like the above.
  6. Pull students back to homework detention (if you have one) when necessary, and making it clear to the class why most students aren’t being pulled back. Script example: I’m so proud of most of you. You’re taking your quizzes so seriously and you are learning so much — it’s turning you into brilliant scientists and some of you are demonstrating such brilliant knowledge…”
  7. Praise students who:
  • Improve their scores week on week
  • Mark themselves harshly
  • Get something wrong in a quiz but when questioned in class get it right (it shows they learnt from the experience)

If I were a slick salesperson, I wouldn’t have said most of the above. I would have reassured you, dear teacher, that we are doing loads already and what’s more we will also do x, y and z in future and wonderful promises and daisies and fairy cakes and unicorn rainbows. But I’m not a slick salesperson — and I hope we never employ one. Instead, our focus is getting students to know more stuff, and part of that is a simple home truth: the bulk of the work in stopping children cheating is not done by us at Carousel; it’s done by you as the classroom teacher. You need to set a culture where it’s normal for students to take their homework seriously, where it’s normal for them to find things difficult, but to persevere regardless. And, crucially, where it is abnormal for them to cheat, or game the system, or use the minimum of effort. It’s an issue of culture and, for better or for worse, we can’t do that for you.

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Carousel Learning

Carousel is a retrieval practice and online quizzing tool that helps students to embed knowledge in their long-term memory.